After getting a call from an emergency dispatcher about a triple homicide, Wichita police Capt. Troy Livingston arrived at the scene a little before 1 a.m. Tuesday.
Livingston, head of the violent crimes bureau, was struck by something he saw near the South Beech house where the killings had just occurred: a male officer cradling a baby, rocking the baby, looking down at the baby – the lone survivor. The 5-month-old boy was quiet.
Later, Livingston would say, “I just didn’t expect to see an officer holding a baby,” not at a house where three people had just been killed. Two of the three bodies in the house were the baby’s young parents, the third his maternal grandmother. Police said they each had been shot multiple times.
Less than 72 hours after the shooting, the baby was carried back to the scene in a relative’s arms. Relatives brought the infant to a candlelight vigil Thursday night, where the sounds of people sobbing here and there mingled with the breeze. A crowd of around 200 mourners, mostly young people, filled the front yard and stretched across the street.
Earlier Thursday evening, in the same neighborhood, in a home filled with the aroma of incense, Hao Huynh described an ongoing conflict that had gone on over time before the gunfire erupted. Hao Huynh, a small, wiry man with a neatly clipped mustache, is the father of Tuyet Huynh, the baby’s 45-year-old maternal grandmother.
On Friday, prosecutors charged Tuyet Huynh’s boyfriend, 41-year-old Vinh V. Nguyen, with capital murder in the deaths of Tuyet Huynh; her daughter, 20-year-old Trinh Pham; and the young woman’s fiance and father of her child, 21-year-old Sean Pham. The capital murder charge means that Nguyen could face the death penalty.
Nguyen had threatened his daughter before, Hao Huynh said. He encouraged her to tell the authorities. But she didn’t, Hao Huynh said through an interpreter. He is from Vietnam.
“She might have been scared,” he said. “It’s hard to say without being in her shoes.”
Tuyet Huynh and her boyfriend had been living together about a year at her house near Webb and Pawnee, in a newer, well-kept neighborhood. She had repeatedly tried to kick him out, but he kept coming back. And every time he returned, he threatened her, Hao Huynh said.
Domestic violence takes a wide toll across the state and is thought to be heavily under-reported. In 2012, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation says, 24 of the state’s homicides — about one in four — were related to domestic violence. Eight of the 24 homicides occurred in Sedgwick County.
Nguyen’s acquaintances say he came to the United States around five years ago, later moving from Atlanta, Ga., to Wichita, where he worked as an auto body repairman, sanding metal and smoothing dents at a shop on South Broadway.
During the candlelight vigil Thursday night, his car was the only one at the crime scene. For the first few days after the shooting, police kept the car draped behind yellow tape. By Thursday night, the tape had been removed, and the investigators had left, but the car still sat at the curb. It is a dark-colored 1997 Nissan Maxima, dimpled by hail. In the car, and easily visible to anyone who walked by during the vigil: an unopened six-pack of toilet paper, a jug of antifreeze and jumbles of clutter and clothing. Someone in the vigil crowd said the car was a “sore thumb.” One man walked over and scowled at the car before a woman led him away. Early Friday, someone vandalized the car, breaking out its windows, headlights and taillights.
The oldest of the three victims, Tuyet Huynh, was a second-shift custodial worker at Wichita State University. She grew lettuce, peppers, cucumbers and cooked every day. Within her family, she was the one who made tasty egg rolls and seafood soup, with shrimp and crab. There was no party without her soup.
In the Vietnamese tradition, her family is in mourning for 100 days. They pray daily, that the souls of the dead will be free and with God in Heaven. Tuyet Huynh’s family is Catholic. They have a cross and images of Joseph and Mary hanging over the fireplace mantel, now lined with flowers and photos of the victims, sticks of burning incense to keep the spirits warm and shot glasses full of fine whiskey — libations for the souls.
In describing the impact on the family, Hao Huynh said: “It’s a big shock. It’s a huge loss to the family. One (death) is a tragic loss, but when you have multiple in your family, it’s just hard to take in — and unimaginable.”
Tuyet Huynh had six children, including Trinh Huynh, the daughter who died with her. Police have said that it was Trinh who called 911 during the shooting. The dispatcher could hear gunshots.
Trinh’s baby son, Carsen Pham, is with his father’s family.
As to why the killer didn’t harm the baby, Hao Huynh said, “Only he (the shooter) would know.”
Two of Tuyet Huynh’s other children, an 18-year-old and a 4-year-old, were away visiting friends the night the shooting happened.
The family doesn’t know what to say to the 4-year-old. So far, they have been telling him that his mother is away, visiting in Vietnam.
At the family house where the incense is being burned, the 4-year-old’s grandmother, Nhung Luong, sat quietly at a table. She lost a daughter and a granddaughter. She looked down or stared off.
Trinh Pham, the 20-year-old mother of baby Carsen, played the violin. She made nearly perfect grades at East High School, where Sean also attended, their assistant principal has said. They already had the same last names. There are many Phams in Wichita; it is a common name in Vietnam.
The young couple had been saving to get married. To celebrate their six-year anniversary as a couple this past Sunday, Sean spent all day making sushi for Trinh.
At one point during the candlelight vigil outside crime scene, Sean Pham’s mother, Le Pham, rested off to the side with family. She said Sean was her only child. Now she is taking care of her only grandchild, baby Carsen. His father picked the name partly because it was different.
Of her dead son, Le Pham said: “Oh, he’s a very good dad, very good dad,” smiling as she said it. On Friday, she reflected again on her son, saying, “I couldn’t have asked for a better kid.”
The family says that Sean Pham seemed to have extra drive after he became a father, that it made him determined to succeed. He was working as an accounts-payable clerk at Midwest Single Source. The business e-mailed a statement about him, including, “As well as being the best dancer at our office parties his quick wit, charm and bright smile kept us all entertained ... His family meant the world to him. Sean is irreplaceable in our office and in our hearts.”
Le Pham is keeping a record of the outpouring of love for Sean and Trinh — all the Facebook posts and pictures and videos from the vigil — so Carsen will know how much his parents meant to others.
Early in the vigil, she carried the boy up to front porch where people lined up photos of Sean, Trinh and Tuyet, stacks of bouquets and a forest of lighted candles. In groups of two or three, people walked up to the front porch, arm in arm, and knelt in prayer.
Luong, the maternal matriarch, stepped slowly out of the crowd toward the porch, wearily. She held a hand over her mouth, and her legs looked wobbly. And on each side of her, someone quickly approached and gently held her arms to support her. Later, she stood with an arm draped protectively around a boy.
The elderly woman and the young boy fixed their eyes on the porch, illuminated by candles, and wept together.
As for the baby, he was lovingly passed from one female relative to another throughout the vigil.
Even though he suddenly lost his parents and a grandmother, only five months into his life, there has been no lack of arms to hold him, including the police officer’s.
As it grew dark at the vigil, a woman rocked him to sleep.